An Open Book
The school library at Meriwether Lewis Elementary is converting to a “flexible schedule,” and the person in charge couldn’t be happier. “It feels so much more authentic,” said Andrea Atkinson, lead librarian. “I’m able to be there for the students when they need me.”
Flexible scheduling is a model of library availability that provides open access to the library throughout the day, rather than only during a scheduled “library time” for each class. The model encourages students to drop in whenever they have free time in their day, and allows teachers to bring their classes to use the library as it suits a particular learning activity, even on the spur of the moment.
Atkinson was exposed to the method during her work as both a teacher and librarian before she moved to Virginia. “The American Library Association has long encouraged flexible scheduling, and that’s all we operated under in Michigan,” she said. “Most of the County elementary libraries here are at least hybrids, with some flexible time built in.”
The ALA promotes the educational value of providing access to information “just in time,” when learners need to investigate further, rather than “just in case,” for some potential future need. Advocates argue that when the library (or librarian) is “booked” with pre-planned sessions all day, there is less opportunity for it to be used as an immediate resource.
In practice, a flexible schedule means the library doors are always open. At Meriwether Lewis, where many teachers use a literacy framework called the Daily 5, which prescribes daily reading, listening, and writing goals, students doing independent reading can be released to the library to find and check out books. Atkinson is able to provide support lessons on the fly, such as quick seminars for students on how to use Google Docs or the online catalog.
The arrangement also allows her to be more responsive to student requests. During each grade’s CE (Curriculum Extension) Time, she offers book clubs for interested readers. A recent meeting of eight third grade boys, working their way through a graphic novel with Atkinson as their guide, bubbled with exuberant debate and laughter as they took turns reading aloud from their paperback copies.
For teachers not yet comfortable with dropping the traditional library period altogether, Atkinson offers every-other-week sessions for their classes and provides book talks and other guidance at those times, but she hopes more will adopt the flexible schedule. Last year, one class of first graders was allowed to come to the library in small groups during their Daily 5, armed with an iPad timer so they knew exactly how much time they had. “You guys, two minutes left!” the timekeeper would warn. “I was so glad to see them take charge of their learning that way,” laughed Atkinson, “plus there was a little math in there, too!”
Between August 1 and November 10, almost 4,000 area students will visit the Fralin Museum of Art at U.Va. for the annual literacy competition, now in its 31st year, called Writer’s Eye. Using a specially curated collection of paintings, sculpture, and photography for inspiration, Writer’s Eye challenges students to create original poetry and prose based on the art, which they can then submit to be judged anonymously by local writers and educators. Winning entries are awarded prizes, notoriety, and a place in the museum’s printed anthology each year.
Murray Elementary recently sent 45 interested students from its third, fourth, and fifth grades to tour the exhibition, along with their Gifted Resource Teacher, Laura Richardson. “Writer’s Eye is an opt-in field trip,” said Richardson, “and I introduce it to each grade level by doing an in-class exercise in writing a response to art, so the students can see if they like the process.” Students who want to sign up must commit to the writing component (a story of up to 1,000 words or a poem fitting on two pages or less) as part of the experience.
The competition divides entries into groups by grade level—3-5, 6-8, 9-12, and adult—and recognizes 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners plus honorable mentions in each group. For the younger kids, Richardson says the event gives them a new way of looking at art. “Developmentally, these students are somewhat newly able to think more abstractly and less literally, and that’s the focus of Writer’s Eye,” she said. “At first they are tempted to be very literal in wanting to label everything, especially in abstract works, but then they transcend that to get to the feeling or the mood of the piece, and they use their imagination to become more responsive.”
Key to this process are the Fralin’s docents, trained U.Va. students who guide groups of 10-15 students through the collection and who are expert at drawing out their observations and encouraging creative thinking. Aimee Hunt, associate academic curator at the museum, watches that process unfold every day during Writer’s Eye. “For students, there’s a big difference between looking at art by yourself, versus being told about the work, versus being asked about the work,” she said. “Kids really like to talk, and so that’s how the tours are led.” The students take notes on clipboards as they tour, and docent-prompted activities such as acting out a scene in a painting or suggesting questions for the artist keep them engaged.
After their tour, students decide on their favorite artwork and begin their prose or poetry writing, aiming for a mid-November deadline. Fifth grader Kai Fusco enjoyed the experience. “I think it’s good when you’re practicing writing to see real art,” he said. “I like the more abstract art because you don’t really know what it is and you can use your imagination. You kind of get to ‘make the painting’ in your mind.” For his entry, Fusco is considering trying his hand at haiku, a short form of poetry introduced by Richardson at Murray—just one of many creative doors opened by the inspirational power of Writer’s Eye.
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